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The Jewelry of Robert Ebendorf: A Retrospective of Forty Years


A leader in the studio jewelry movement, Robert Ebendorf (b. 1938) combines traditional goldsmithing techniques, collage and unconventional materials to create dynamic ornamentation. "The Jewelry of Robert Ebendorf: A Retrospective of Forty Years," a traveling exhibition on view this fall at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, traces the evolution of this inventive, dedicated and prolific artist through objects drawn from 20 private and nine museum and cultural collections.

On view from Sept. 26, 2003 through Jan. 19, 2004, the exhibition contains 95 objects including jewelry and sculpture as well as drawings, sketches, photographs and working notes. A re-creation of Ebendorf's desk and workspace is included in the exhibition.

"Robert Ebendorf helped shape the American craft movement since the early 1960s," said Elizabeth Broun, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. "He is greatly respected by other craft artists and students, and the museum is fortunate to present this retrospective exploring his exceptional career."

Internationally known for using unusual materials that range from crab claws to Formica ColorCore along with gold, silver and bronze, Ebendorf's work defies categorization. Miniature chairs and sterling tea infusers join brooches, bracelets, necklaces and rings in demonstrating the wide range of Ebendorf's craft.

The exhibition is divided into four chronological sections: "A Visual Vocabulary: 1960­1970," "Taming the Text: 1970­1990," "Meaning and Memory: 1990­2000" and "Looking Backward, Looking Forward: 2000­present." Beginning with traditional silver objects produced during his graduate studies, this retrospective follows Ebendorf's progression to the use of found objects, industrial products, paper, shells and street debris.

After returning from service in World War II, Ebendorf pursued a formal education at the University of Kansas. He was awarded a Fulbright Grant to study in Norway in 1963, and three years later, a Louis Comfort Tiffany Grant to work for Norway Silver Design. Overlaying his classical training, he came to appreciate Nordic ornamentation, which inspired his designs.

In addition to his traditional silver work, Ebendorf created the series "Portable Souls" (about 1969). This collection of three leather cases with daguerreotypes demonstrates his visual language of complex surface design and alternative materials. He saw the ghostly metallic images as "lost souls" and began to question American spiritual values. His keen interest in art and religion appears again in similar compositions he created from the 1990s to the present.

His professional associations and contacts resulted in creative, new ideas. As a teacher at the State University of New York at New Paltz, Ebendorf met the innovative jeweler Claus Bury, whose use of unconventional materials sparked excitement in Ebendorf. In 1969, Ebendorf founded the Society of North American Goldsmiths, and in 1971, he became president. At this time, he began to incorporate Plexiglas, Styrofoam, rice paper and wood into his work. The "Colored Smoke Machine" series (1974­1975) demonstrates his love of materials both precious and non-precious including gold, plastic tubing, pearls and copper. They are some of his wittiest works. Another example of Ebendorf's use of mixed materials, such as 14-carat gold, amber and bone, is "Necklace" (1972), a piece with tribal talismanic qualities.

"Ebendorf finds materials that are de-valued in our society and reconfigures those objects, thereby giving them new value," said Kenneth Trapp, curator-in-charge of the Renwick Gallery. "As a teacher, he has had the luxury of some stability which enabled him to move into an exploration of materials. He uses found objects as his aesthetic motif."

In 1984, Ebendorf won a Formica design competition, with then-wife and designer Ivy Ross, to explore a new product called ColorCore. As seen in "Necklace" (1984), the material was a thin plastic sheet with a matte finish and color baked throughout. He sawed, drilled and broke the ColorCore, crafting precious objects from this industrial source. During this time, Ebendorf also fashioned Styrofoam bead necklaces from layered mixed media and unreadable, fragmented text. His dyslexia, diagnosed late in his college years, may account for his frequent use of paper with incoherent text.

The necklace "Off the Street, From the Beach" (about 1992) is from a happy time in Ebendorf's life. While he and his daughter wandered around the beach or walked together to school, they would look for glass, wire, spoons and plastic parts. He assembled these pieces into a playful, child-like series of necklaces in his own take on abstract expressionist painting.

More recently, while creating larger freestanding objects and wall-mounted works, Ebendorf's primary visual reference remains the human body. For example, "Chair" (1992) was created when he was exposed to furniture and product design during a short time in California. He took discarded furniture from streets and alleys, stripping them down to their bare framework and redressing the armature in his own unique way.

"In Ebendorf's eyes, the chair is jewelry because it encompasses the body, and the body participates with the chair," said Trapp.

Beginning in 1993, Ebendorf returned to religious themes with the "Cross Reference" collection and the "Lost Souls and Found Spirits" series. The cross necklaces of glass shards, rusted beer tabs and other found material portrayed not only religious imagery, but also were equally about process, goldsmithing and material choice. The "Lost Souls" series expresses a dark and brooding mood with the use of crab claws, squirrel paws or chicken feet juxtaposed with metal settings and pearls.

Since 1999, Ebendorf has served as Carole Grotnes Belk Distinguished Professor at the East Carolina University School of Art in North Carolina.

"The Jewelry of Robert Ebendorf: A Retrospective of Forty Years" is organized by the Gallery of Art & Design, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, N.C.

The exhibition is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, North Carolina Arts Council, and the Friends of the Gallery Publication Fund.

Shelby M. and Frederick M. Gans and the James Renwick Alliance support the exhibition's presentation at the Renwick Gallery.

Ruth T. Summers, director of the Southern Highland Craft Guild in Asheville, N.C., and Bruce W. Pepich, executive director and curator of collections at the Racine Art Museum in Racine, Wis., co-curated the exhibition.

Public Programs

A schedule of public programs, including lectures, craft demonstrations, performances and Family Days is available. Call (202) 275-1500 or visit AmericanArt.si.edu.


The exhibition is accompanied by The Jewelry of Robert Ebendorf: A Retrospective of Forty Years, published by the Gallery of Art & Design, North Carolina State University. The 48-page exhibition catalogue includes an introduction by Charlotte Vestal Brown, director of the Gallery of Art & Design, essays by co-curators Summers and Pepic as well as essays by former students Christina T. Miller, Rebekah Laskin and Marjorie Simon. The book is available for purchase at the Renwick Gallery Museum Store.


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